What is your worst encounter with global warming? A super-cyclone, a hurricane, a deluge that drowned your city, unbearable summers, months of drought, or a little-known illness snatching away a near one? Storms make the biggest headlines and so your memory most probably would be linked to names – Bhola, Katrina, Aila, Sandy – or years – 1970…2005 … 2009...2012… which one is next? The dates recur with increasing frequency, coalescing with each other just as every christening of a superstorm far out in our warming seas strikes terror in our hearts. What are your memories of these disasters? Are these painful, fearsome or worse?
For me, storms bring remembrances of a good friend whom the cyclone took from us. A young energetic guy, a loving family, a promising career. But the weather gods thought otherwise. One of those majestic krishnachura trees, which in season deck up in bright orange blooms, crushed the car he was driving. It was a night of a severe storm in Calcutta and many trees were uprooted, as they still are whenever a powerful storm strikes.
Do any of you remember that scene from The Day After Tomorrow with the homeless man on the streets of New York when the enormous weather system had already formed, and there is a traffic jam, and he says “These people, and their cars, and their exhausts...and they’re polluting the atmosphere.” In some ways, in that film, that homeless man is a kind of conscience keeper for humanity.
He is one of those who, besides climatologist Jack Hall, seems to care. He seems to know what we are doing to the planet. Or take the scene when Frank, Jack’s colleague, crashes through the roof of a shopping mall to his death. These images tell us something. When we come away from the theatre, the homeless man’s words keep ringing in our minds and perhaps, just perhaps, make some of us think differently.
What we have read already
Books, I would like to believe, can do the same. New studies are discovering that novels about climate change can indeed influence dialogue and behavioural change among readers. So, what drives an author to write climate fiction or “cli-fi” as Dan Bloom wants us to call it? Simple: Climate change is a disaster staring us in the face and it is natural that writers and other creative producers will engage with it.
During the height of the Cold War, a raft of nuclear apocalypse and post-apocalyptic novels and books was written, among which we can count such well-remembered works as A Canticle for Lebowitz, the Gregory Peck starrer On the Beach based on Nevil Shute’s novel, and Staley Kubrick’s Dr Strangeglove. It is expected that the spectre and reality of climate change will spawn an equally rich body of work. Yet, this has not happened everywhere –especially in climate-vulnerable countries such as ours, there has hardly been any climate literature.
The material that a literature of climate change has to handle is huge and amorphous. Is it up to the task? Perhaps there is something missing in all our efforts. A missing link to the hearts and minds of people, something that will make them give up wasteful practices and high-carbon lifestyles. Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement has pointed out that popular protest movements could play an important role in mobilising people. He also stresses how fiction, because of its unique ability, which allows the “imagining of possibilities”, can play a unique role in engaging with climate change.
From the very beginning of The Road, Cormac McCarthy overpowers you with his diamond cut prose depicting a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. Relating my own experience of reading the book, I had earlier written, “McCarthy moves us with the revelatory beauty of his unadorned prose, which forages for the right words in a fictional landscape where words are dying out – returning with gems of description and style that glitter and shine. In this book, the infinite scope of the novel is established once again by one of the masters of the craft.”
Surely the language is hard to ignore, and if we consider this to be cli-fi, though it seems to allude to a nuclear war, this is perhaps one of the most wonderfully wrought works in the “genre.” Still, when we are talking about engaging with an imminent threat to all forms of life on the planet, mere beauty, some would say, is not enough.
But first, why is climate literature necessary and important? Where does it stand with respect to other so-called genres? What are the types and forms it has taken? What impediments does it face in imagining the unpredictable aspects of climate change? How can it assume a more engaged role by telling stories of transitions to a better world?
Why we need climate fiction
Storytelling has brought people together from ancient times. By connecting with us at our deepest levels, stories can move us in ways that bare facts, scientific material or news reports cannot. Besides serving to connect people and communicate at a deeper level, stories often serve the purpose of moral commentary, influencing our behaviour, politics, and action. While the scientific method makes a purposeful dissection of reality to discover its hidden laws, the literary artist works with the human mind. The subconscious and the natural world is her material, imagination her resource, and language her tool.
When Kim Stanley Robinson, in Pacific Edge, imagines characters in the small township of El Modena coming together to correct the wasteful ways of the past while fighting impediments, he is using the power of imagination to present a possible world while also pointing out the politics and organisation required to move in that direction. This is how imagination coupled with a conscientious politics can be brought together in fiction to portray a better future.
Or when Barbara Kingsolver in Flight Behaviour portrays how the migration habits of monarch butterflies get affected by climate change, creating upheavals in the lives of a Mexican community, profoundly affecting the principal character Dellarobia, she is again using her imagination to paint a possible world – in this case a place disrupted by climate disaster.
Between them, these two authors are using fiction both to communicate the inherent dangers and contradictions of the present ways of the world, with Robinson going further to point out a transition to a better future. Climate fiction (including films) can in fact portray these changes and their impact on individual and collective behaviour, thereby creating different future imaginaries which, as Jeffrey Barber suggests, deepens awareness about the possible courses the future might take and can also guide policy and action.
Sophia David in her paper “Eco-fiction: Bringing Climate Change into the Imagination” describes the potential critical functions of the climate novel as those of “communicating climate change, engaging readers with the issue, and making climate change meaningful and relevant to non-scientific people”. These then are some of the basic reasons that cli-fi is important today.
But there is one more reason why a certain sub-genre of this kind of writing is of the greatest importance in our world. It can help to instill hope and fight despair in the face of climate disaster. We can refer to this as politically engaged fiction, the fiction of “critical utopias”.
Telling the right stories
Another set of justifications is proposed by Nick Admussen to demonstrate the importance of cli-fi in today’s world. His “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change” argues that our inability to visualise the unfolding disaster of climate change arises from a problem of our culture. In other words, we are not writing and telling the right stories.
Calling for doing away with progress-based narratives, Admussen suggests that progress logic “transforms the struggle to dismantle a destructive system into an episode of Scooby Doo or a volume of the Hardy Boys, in which the broken waste pipe is discovered dripping green goo and the story ends with its owner in handcuffs. These narratives end before the real conversation should start: the one that prevents such crimes in the first place.”
He goes on to point out that narratives centred on individualism are destructive as they erase “radical dependence on each other and the environment”. Admussen argues that the self-regard and navel-gazing of culture distances it from the living systems that the environment consists of, which is why our conservation efforts fail and which is where an intervention needs to be made.
He further proposes that romanticising the poor while exporting the pollution of industrialised nations to their countries is ethically wrong, and that the voices of the underprivileged should be heard in the new fiction – it must narrate the ills that such a system promotes. This understanding echoes the approaches of environmental humanists like Sverker Sörlin, who avers, “Uncritically applying the indiscriminately universalising tool of monetised services risks doing more harm than good to the environment. In particular, it runs the risk of marginalising social groups – and, therefore, civic values –as they try to articulate value-based agendas for defending nature and urban space.” The new literature of climate change needs to take this into account.
In the final part of his proposals Admussen emphasises on connectedness and world-building in fiction, stressing on the need to focus on systems and not objects, bringing up Robinson Crusoe as an example of the latter. In the end he stresses on the necessary links between “knowing”, art and ethics, or moving people to action, finishing with these important lines, “Writing fiction must become more than an exercise in personal fulfillment, ambition, or hunger for fame. If there is no Silent Spring without The Jungle, if there is no American socialism without Star Trek, then artists have a calling and a responsibility that is much deeper, and more crucial, than the academy might have us believe.”
The idea of forgoing ambition in the face of climate disaster is echoed by commentators like Jim Bendell when he writes, “We no longer have time for the career games of aiming to publish in top-ranked journals to impress our line managers or improve our CV for if we enter the job market.” Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement devotes an entire section to the issue of culture failing to engage climate change. This turning away from one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today is what he calls the great derangement, going on to discuss why this engagement hasn’t happened while pointing out the exceptions. Ghosh writes:
“In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”
Cli-fi researcher Gregers Andersen quotes French philosopher Paul Ricoeur who writes: “The first way human beings attempt to understand and to master the ‘manifold’ of the practical field is to give themselves a fictive representation of it.” This then is another reason why cli-fi is important to the world because, as Andersen explains, it helps human beings not only to imagine how the future will look like but also “to come to terms with what it will mean to live in a seriously altered climate”.
Naomi Klein writes, “Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.” It is absurd that literature refuses to engage with the phenomenon and, even when it does, prefers to push them into ghettos of genre writing.
[To be continued.]
Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently published The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction. This article is an edited version of his keynote address on the “Literatures of Climate Change” delivered at a national conference in St Andrews College, Mumbai.
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